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Refugee students battle to access education due to COVID 19

Wadgy Sawahel

 

To withstand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been calling on governments, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders to improve the access of refugees to university education. Higher education experts have echoed the call, highlighting the vulnerability of African students in refugee camps in particular. 

Shabia Mantoo, the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva recently that without support for the university education of refugees, “countless futures will be jeopardised”.  

Mantoo said refugees needed to be included in national education systems and more international support was also needed to help refugee-host countries work towards this. “We also need more donors, universities and higher education institutions to come forward and offer places and scholarship programmes for refugees to enable their studies,” she said.

In an attempt to support refugees, UNHCR in October launched a first-of-its-kind platform, Scholarship Opportunities for Refugees, which provides a global database of higher education programmes available to refugees both in their countries of asylum and abroad. 

More refugees could drop out of university 

“Higher education [provisioning] for refugees, in general, is unfortunately very limited as it is,” Mantoo told University World News. "Today, only 3% of refugees globally have access to higher education. This is a very small figure.” 

“For African refugee students who are enrolled in tertiary programmes, COVID-related university, college and school closures, as well as disruptions in learning, are affecting their studies. But we are quite worried about the other consequences of the pandemic,” Mantoo added.

“Bearing in mind that the majority of the world’s refugees – 85% – live in developing regions, the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing many refugees further into poverty,” she said. According to her this could force many displaced and destitute students to drop out of university, college and school and into work or on the streets to try and support themselves and their families.

Expanding further, Paul O'Keeffe, a post-doctoral researcher at the Switzerland-based University of Geneva’s InZone Centre for Higher Education in Fragile Contexts, told University World News that the suspension of programmes, due to lockdowns and other restrictive measures imposed by the forced migration management system, has had the biggest impact on refugee higher education.

“The easy fix of switching purely to online approaches that we have seen in the West has been proven time and again not to be an effective educational approach in the best of circumstances, but has been disastrous for refugees confined to poorly resourced camps, where electricity and other basic resources are insufficient and luxuries like internet connections and technology are only available for the few,” added O'Keeffe.  

He is the author of the August 2020 article “The case for engaging online tutors for supporting learners in higher education in refugee contexts”.

Echoing these sentiments, Ali Abdirahman Osman at the Kenya-based Kakuma Refugee Camp, which is one of the biggest refugee camps in the world, told University World News: “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on African university students [who are] refugees economically, academically, socially and even psychologically. African refugee students suffered from discrimination, worry of no studies, no income and some have even been thinking of suicide.” 

He is a co-author of the 2020 research paper “One Health education in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya): From a MOOC to projects on real world challenges”.

Online education difficulties

Derya Ozkul, research officer at the Refugee Studies Centre of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, told University World Newsthat refugees who have already been faced with difficulties were now worse off.  

“There have been attempts to provide online education, but many refugees do not have access to technological equipment, computers, Wi-Fi, or a suitable place to work.” Ozkul is the author of the September 2020 report Policy recommendations towards immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees for the COVID-19 pandemic

In her study Ozkul recommended that there “should be additional optional classes for particularly vulnerable communities, including refugees and irregular migrants who did not have the chance of accessing online education, in order for them to be able to catch up with online teaching materials”.

A “severe” impact on students

Barbara Moser-Mercer, a visiting professor at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, told University World News that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education in emergencies became a global phenomenon with emergency remote teaching rather than quality digital learning, one of the most frequent responses at tertiary level.

“The impact has been severe for almost all students,” Moser-Mercer said.

“For those forcibly displaced, as well as other marginalised groups, enjoying the human right to education should thus also include an entitlement to connectivity, and African institutions of higher learning need to move swiftly from digitalising content to implementing quality on-line learning with on-site learning support in refugee communities,” she added.

“Some of the key obstacles that prevent larger numbers of refugees on the African continent from accessing tertiary education, such as education financing, credential recognition and degree programmes that are germane to Africa and make refugees truly employable in host country communities, have little to do with COVID-19,” said Moser-Mercer.

“Advancement in these areas, and in quality digital learning at tertiary level, is what the recently launched African University Network for Higher Education in Emergencies, has set itself as key objectives for the next three years,” said Moser-Mercer, author of the 2020 article“Higher Education in Emergencies – An African Response Model”.

Correcting misconceptions

Hakan Ergin, lecturer at Istanbul University, Turkey, told University World News that African refugees are the “most disadvantaged group amongst refugees as they face racial discrimination, in addition to serious socioeconomic challenges”. 

“This has been doubled by the COVID-19 pandemic because of the misconception that refugees are considered to be transmitters of the pandemic, just as African refugees were misconceived to be the only transmitters of HIV, malaria, measles and tuberculosis before,” said Ergin, who is the co-author of the  July 2020 book Refugees and Higher Education: Trans-national perspectives on access, equity, and internationalization.

“However, we see that the number of positive COVID-19 cases among refugees is quite low [compared to] that of settled residents. This misconception might lead to a wrong belief that African refugee students are not healthy and might transmit the pandemic on university campuses,” Ergin pointed out.

“In order to fight such a misconception, stakeholders of higher education should be informed correctly that not a specific race or refugee group but anyone is a potential transmitter of the pandemic,” Ergin concluded.

Get back to the basics

To deal with the health impact of COVID-19 on university education for African refugees, O'Keeffe said the InZone centre had mobilised medical and global health students to create a COVID-19 strategy which enabled the centre to continue working in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. 

“The strategy includes various health care advice videos the students created and spread around the camp via Whatsapp, and a plan to facilitate safe access to our learning facilities: we provide hand sanitiser, soap and masks and require our students to follow strict social distancing measures in our facilities and have a well-structured schedule for group gatherings. While this has taken a little planning and effort, it has proved very effective and has allowed our students to take back a bit of control over their lives in these difficult times,” said O'Keeffe.

According to O’Keeffe, the international education community needed to recalibrate itself and get back to basics – teaching and learning.

“Yes, [COVID-19] makes our work harder, but abdicating our pedagogical responsibilities and [allowing ourselves to be] tempted by the easy options such as switching to purely online education approaches, will not help in the long run,” he said.

 

The article in University World news

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